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States scale back virus reporting just as cases surge

States scale back virus reporting just as cases surge

OMAHA, Neb. — Several states scaled back their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month just as cases across the country started to skyrocket, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their communities.The shift to weekly instead of daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota marked a notable shift during a pandemic in which coronavirus dashboards have become a staple for Americans closely tracking case counts and trends to navigate a crisis that has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S.In Nebraska, the state actually stopped reporting on the virus altogether for two weeks after Gov. Pete Ricketts declared an end to the official virus emergency, forcing news reporters to file public records requests or turn to national websites that track state data to learn about COVID statistics. The state backtracked two weeks later and came up with a weekly site that provides some basic numbers.Other governments have gone the other direction and released more information, with Washington, D.C., this week adding a dashboard on breakthrough cases to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after getting vaccines. Many states have recently gone to reporting virus numbers only on weekdays.When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting earlier this month, officials said it made sense given the decreasing number of cases and the increasing number of people being vaccinated.Cases started soaring soon after, and Florida earlier this week made up up one-fifth of the country’s new coronavirus infections. As a result, Florida’s weekly releases — typically done on Friday afternoons — have consequences for the country’s understanding of the current summer surge, with no statewide COVID stats coming out of the virus hotspot for six days a week.In Florida’s last two weekly reports, the number of new cases shot up from 23,000 to 45,000 and then 73,000 on Friday, an average of more than 10,000 day. Hospitals are starting to run out of space in parts of the state.With cases rising, Democrats and other critics have urged state officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis to resume daily outbreak updates.“There was absolutely no reason to eliminate the daily updates beyond an effort to pretend like there are no updates,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area.The trend of reducing data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to virus restrictions and calls to get vaccinated.“We know that showing the data to others actually is important because the actions that businesses take, the actions that schools take, the actions that civic leaders take, the actions that community leaders take, the actions that each of us individually take are all influenced by our perception of what the risk is out there,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who leads the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.But reporting the numbers on a weekly basis still allows people to see the overall trends while smoothing out some of he day-to-day variations that come from the way cases are reported and not the actual number of new cases. And experts have long advised that it makes sense to pay more attention to the seven-day rolling average of new cases because the numbers can vary widely from one day to the next.And Florida health officials say that they have not curtailed the sharing of data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Maintaining daily updates on the virus does require significant resources for states. For instance, Kansas went to reporting virus numbers three times a week in May because the state health department said providing daily statistics consumed too much time for its already overwhelmed staff.In Nebraska, officials decided that continuing to update the virus dashboard daily wasn’t the best use of state resources now partly because there had been a steady decline in the number of views of the website indicating less interest in the numbers, spokeswoman Olga Dack said. The state could return to providing daily updates if the governor’s office decided that was needed, she said.“Now that Nebraska is back to normal, some of the staff that has been dedicated to the dashboard has been able to focus on some of the other important issues,” Dack said.State health departments have a long history of providing the public regular updates on other diseases like flu and West Nile, but those viruses have none of the political baggage associated with COVID-19.In Florida, a former health department employee was fired last year after publicly suggesting that managers wanted her to manipulate information on coronavirus statistics to paint a rosier picture. The employee, Rebekah Jones, did not allege any tampering with data, but her comments sowed doubts about the reliability of the metrics.Infectious disease specialist Dr. David Brett-Major said that for many people, national websites such as the one run by the CDC can be a good source of data on the latest state trends and weekly updates could be OK. The World Health Organization often uses weekly updates, but he said they do that for practical data management reasons, not political ones.He said the message Nebraska sent when it ended its dashboard that the state emergency was over and conditions were returning to normal was troubling.“The main problem is that it reflects a disinterest in pandemic risk management,” said Brett-Major, with the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, said part of the problem is that public health officials generally don’t have sophisticated data systems so it is more labor intensive to produce the daily dashboards. Even though public health agencies have money for operations at a time when pandemic government spending is flush, they haven’t necessarily had the chance to upgrade.“It would be great if daily reporting could be made widely available, but public health would have to be funded better to do that and right now that is just not the case,” said Hamilton.And even in states where virus numbers aren’t being reported publicly every day health officials are still looking at the latest data, Hamilton said.But at a time when the delta variant is, in the words of the CDC director, “spreading with incredible efficiency,” Bibbins-Domingo said it is important that everyone can see the latest trends and understand the risks.“Even if we know that they are available to decisionmakers on a daily basis, there is considerable value to providing the data to the public,” she said.—-Associated Press Writer Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.

New US rules to protect animal farmers expected this week

New US rules to protect animal farmers expected this week

The Biden administration plans to issue a new rule to protect the rights of farmers who raise cows, chickens and hogs against the country’s largest meat processors as part of a plan to encourage more competition in the agriculture sectorBy JOSH FUNK Associated PressJuly 6, 2021, 10:06 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleOMAHA, Neb. — The Biden administration plans to issue a new rule to protect the rights of farmers who raise cows, chickens and hogs against the country’s largest meat processors as part of a plan to encourage more competition in the agriculture sector.The new rule that will make it easier for farmers to sue companies they contract with over unfair, discriminatory or deceptive practices is one of several steps that the White House plans to announce in the next few days. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also expected to tighten the definition of what it means for meat to be labeled a “Product of USA” to exclude when animals are raised in other countries and simply processed in the United States.Some farmer advocacy groups have pressed for these changes for several years but Congress and the meat processing industry have resisted the changes in the past. A USDA official familiar with the White House’s plan said an executive order is expected to be announced later this week that will clear the way for the new rules.The regulation that will make it easier for farmers to bring complaints under the Packers and Stockyards Act is similar to one the Trump administration killed four years ago. That rule was first proposed in 2010.Currently, several court rulings have interpreted federal law as saying a farmer must prove a company’s actions harm competition in the entire industry before a lawsuit can move forward. The new rule would ease that high burden of proof.Chicken and pork producers, for example, must often enter long-term contracts with companies like Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride that farmers allege lock them into deals that fix their compensation at unprofitably low levels and forces them deeply into debt.Previously, the major meat companies have defended the contract system as fair that calls for farmers to provide the barns and labor to raise chickens while the companies provide chicks, feed and expertise to help raise the birds. When the previous rule was killed in 2017, the National Chicken Council trade group said it would have opened up the industry to a flood of “frivolous and costly litigation.”The USDA also plans to review the definition of what it means for meat to be labeled a “Product of USA” under its rules. Currently, companies are allowed to use that label anytime meat is processed in the United States even if the animals were born and raised in another country. USDA officials say that today most grass-fed beef labeled as made in the country actually comes from imported cattle. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he wants that label to accurately reflect what consumers expect when they read it.The Agriculture Department also plans to invest in new local and regional markets, so farmers will have more options of where to sell the animals and crops they raise. Critics have said the major meat processing companies dominate the market for cattle, hogs and chickens, which makes it harder for farmers to get a fair price for the animals they raise.This week’s expected executive order follows an announcement earlier this spring that the USDA was planning to strengthen protections for farmers under the law and encourage more competition in livestock markets.

New US rules to protect animal farmers expected this week

New US rules to protect animal farmers expected this week

The Biden administration plans to issue a new rule to protect the rights of farmers who raise cows, chickens and hogs against the country’s largest meat processors as part of a plan to encourage more competition in the agriculture sectorBy JOSH FUNK Associated PressJuly 6, 2021, 10:06 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleOMAHA, Neb. — The Biden administration plans to issue a new rule to protect the rights of farmers who raise cows, chickens and hogs against the country’s largest meat processors as part of a plan to encourage more competition in the agriculture sector.The new rule that will make it easier for farmers to sue companies they contract with over unfair, discriminatory or deceptive practices is one of several steps that the White House plans to announce in the next few days. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also expected to tighten the definition of what it means for meat to be labeled a “Product of USA” to exclude when animals are raised in other countries and simply processed in the United States.Some farmer advocacy groups have pressed for these changes for several years but Congress and the meat processing industry have resisted the changes in the past. A USDA official familiar with the White House’s plan said an executive order is expected to be announced later this week that will clear the way for the new rules.The regulation that will make it easier for farmers to bring complaints under the Packers and Stockyards Act is similar to one the Trump administration killed four years ago. That rule was first proposed in 2010.Currently, several court rulings have interpreted federal law as saying a farmer must prove a company’s actions harm competition in the entire industry before a lawsuit can move forward. The new rule would ease that high burden of proof.Chicken and pork producers, for example, must often enter long-term contracts with companies like Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride that farmers allege lock them into deals that fix their compensation at unprofitably low levels and forces them deeply into debt.Previously, the major meat companies have defended the contract system as fair that calls for farmers to provide the barns and labor to raise chickens while the companies provide chicks, feed and expertise to help raise the birds. When the previous rule was killed in 2017, the National Chicken Council trade group said it would have opened up the industry to a flood of “frivolous and costly litigation.”The USDA also plans to review the definition of what it means for meat to be labeled a “Product of USA” under its rules. Currently, companies are allowed to use that label anytime meat is processed in the United States even if the animals were born and raised in another country. USDA officials say that today most grass-fed beef labeled as made in the country actually comes from imported cattle. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he wants that label to accurately reflect what consumers expect when they read it.The Agriculture Department also plans to invest in new local and regional markets, so farmers will have more options of where to sell the animals and crops they raise. Critics have said the major meat processing companies dominate the market for cattle, hogs and chickens, which makes it harder for farmers to get a fair price for the animals they raise.This week’s expected executive order follows an announcement earlier this spring that the USDA was planning to strengthen protections for farmers under the law and encourage more competition in livestock markets.